Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost, 2020

Red, the liturgical color of Pentecost, doesn't show
as brightly during a streaming church service
It's easy to get riled up, whichever side you're on. If you want to be outraged about racial injustice and police brutality, go for it, you'll be outraged for the rest of your life. If you're angry about the double standard of ordering you to practice social distancing at the beach but not if you're rioting, stop being so deplorable--certain groups are allowed to break windows, but sorry, not yours.

So take a breath, masked or not, and make sure that you tend to yourself, your loved ones, and your property. Then turn on the tube if you must and get riled up by the actions of people who are very likely far, far from your neighborhood.

Speaking of breath, today is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to earth and breathed life into the church.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.-----Acts 2:1-4

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Burying the Bullet Train

The coronavirus has forced everyone to make hard financial choices, both in their business and personal lives. Thr State of California, facing a $54-billion budget deficit, has even put Jerry Brown's bullet train under the microscope.
The state High-Speed Rail Authority now projects the 171-mile stretch [from Merced to Bakersfield] would cost $20 billion to build and lose between $40 million and $90 million a year. Even that assumes millions of people living in the Central Valley each year will ride the train to Merced and then use commuter rail to connect to San Jose.

As economic consultants William Grindley and Bill Warren have pointed out, a round-trip between Bakersfield and San Jose would take 12 hours and 10 minutes and cost $189 without a subsidy and $104 with a subsidy.
Long gone are the dreams of connecting the major population centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles. As we noted last year:
Merced-Bakersfield route (Chron graphic)
Since 2012 we've been commenting on the complicated design, pie-in-the-sky ridership assumptions, and cost overruns of the California high-speed rail project.

On Tuesday Governor Newsom effectively killed the project by announcing that he would only commit to completing the Central Valley line between Merced (pop. 83,000) and Bakersfield (pop. 376,000).
The deadly pandemic that has caused record unemployment and business closures has prevented officials from getting raises ("The four members of the California Citizens Compensation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to leave the salaries as they are"), so you know things are really serious.

"We are Go for Launch"

The story that supplanted the Minnesota riots and COVID-19, at least for a day (the launch begins at 6 hours, 10 minutes in):

Friday, May 29, 2020

You Never Know Which Tweets Have Legs

Snapshot of the tweets with red arrows added
On Tuesday President Trump fired his usual barrage of tweets on a variety of subjects, but two of them--on the vulnerability of mail-in ballots to fraud--still are being hotly discussed. (The Twitter link is here.)

The reason for the tweets' legs is not the importance of voter fraud. (Is it more important than the coronavirus, the stock market, or FBI wiretaps?)

No, it's that Twitter for the first time included a fact-check button on anyone's tweets, it happened to be the President, and everyone noticed.

The ensuing discussion over the difference between a platform, a publisher, whether social media is one or the other, the legal liability implications, the well-documented (Democratic vs Republican political donations, conservatives getting fired, stories that are page 1 vs. page 50, etc.) liberal bias of Silicon Valley tech companies, "shadow-banning", and government regulation will likely last a few more days.

The Chronicle's political writer Joe Garofoli says Twitter's "fact-check" button was--whether deliberate or not--a trap that enabled the President to run against "California liberals in Silicon Valley":
To Trump, railing on Silicon Valley generates the same reaction as pounding other “elites” like the media and Democratic governors who don’t want to open the their states for business quickly enough. It’s a well-worn tactic that has kept his conservative base with him through three-plus years in office.

“California is an easy target for conservatives because of the image that we’re ‘freaky San Francisco’ and Hollywood people,” said Donnie Fowler, a former Democratic operative who has worked to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and Washington for two decades and is now the CEO at Tech4America. “It reinforces their messages.”
The Wall Street Journal, to be clear, doesn't support Twitter management, employees, and owners' liberal views (let's not get into that now, dear reader) but does support Twitter's right to run its own site however it wants to.
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter aren’t utilities or soapboxes in the park. They’re businesses that earn piles of money by selling ads against your missives. They’re within their rights to set community standards and spike posts they deem a violation. If this feels suffocating, log off. That includes you, @realDonaldTrump.
Your humble blogger does wish Silicon Valley did not engage in viewpoint discrimination--sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle--but regulation is not the answer. If you don't like it, change the channel or better yet, start your own.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Counting and Carving the Chickens

Only whole chicken, but at least it's organic
Nearly three months ago Costco shoppers picked clean the chicken aisle because of the Fear of Running Out. Recently it looked like FORO had subsided because chicken---not only whole birds but also drumsticks, wings, breasts, and thighs as well as boneless, skinless, organic versions of the same--were back on display.

Over the past week we've noted that only whole chicken was available. That brought back memories of the 1970's and 80's when shoppers bought whole, the same price as two skinless boneless breasts.

Map from
As meat processing became more efficient and trustworthy (remember the warnings about salmonella, tapeworm, and mad cow disease?) we lazily began buying only the parts called for in recipes.

The current paucity of chicken parts is likely not due to panic buying but the number of meat- and poultry-processing plants that have closed due to COVID-19.

Now we have to sharpen our knives and bone up on our chicken carving. Gordon Ramsay shows how it's done.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bringing the Condition Home

Walking in someone else's shoes even for a brief period fosters empathy. And so it is that today many people, including your humble blogger, can better identify with the struggles of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). [bold added]
Howie Mandel has been afflicted with
ADHD and OCD since childhood.
(Psychology Today)
Life for everyone in the Bay Area right now---with the intense handwashing, fear of leaving the home and fear of causing harm to others---resembles some of the classic OCD struggles. And indeed, OCD sufferers with contamination-related compulsions are facing heightened anxiety during the pandemic.

But many others are reporting that years of therapy have made them the calmest person in their household. And the sheltering has the potential for a big positive — a turning point for a disorder that has been marked by a lack of understanding in the media and popular culture.

Jeff Bell, a KCBS radio anchor and mental health awareness advocate who documented his own OCD struggle in the 2007 memoir “Rewind, Replay, Repeat,” said he’s already seeing signs of empathy from the public, who are getting a sample-size version of the trials of an OCD patient.
Fictional characters like Sheldon Cooper of The Big, Bang Theory and Adrian Monk of Monk depicted OCD in characters whose quirks were highly first. But as the audience grew to know them over the series' 12-year and 8-year respective runs, the disorder became recognized as integral to their characters' positive attributes. The overwhelming majority of people do not have OCD, but society's fear-filled response to COVID-19 brings the condition home.

Monk, 2002-2009, was a dramedy about a brilliant detective. Tony Shalhoub and some of the cast reprised their roles in this new YouTube short.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

All That Remains

(Chron photo)
When we saw the pictures of the Saturday morning fire at Fisherman's Wharf, we feared the worst. Some of our favorite San Francisco stops are Scoma's Restaurant on Pier 47 and Musée Mécanique on Pier 45. The fire was at Pier 45.

The damage was confined to Shed C, which contained $5 million of fishing gear. The local fishing industry suffered the brunt of the damage due to the loss of an estimated 7,000 crab traps, 2,000 shrimp traps and 500 black cod traps.

When Fisherman's Wharf opens up again, we'll return. It will be up to us locals to keep the businesses afloat until the tourists come back.

The Musée Mécanique machines are all that remains of Playland-at-the-Beach

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day, 2020

Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, CA
Today I thought about my Dad, who passed away in June. He was the last of seven boys, six of whom served during World War II.

I thought of Harry Truman, who made the now-controversial decision to drop the bomb. After 3½ years of all-out war, I can see why he wanted to end it.

Look at us, we can barely tolerate two months of being confined to our air-conditioned Internet-enabled homes.

I probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for the bomb. Dad was training in Texas in the spring of 1945 and would have been part of an invasion of the Japanese homeland that would have cost the lives of up to a million U.S. soldiers and many more Japanese.
"I was terrified at what might happen and damned relieved when the invasion became unnecessary. I accept the military estimates that at least 1 million lives were saved, and mine could have been one of them."
----James Michener
Today we remember and give thanks for the lives of Dad, his brothers, Harry S. Truman, and all who wore the uniform to give their descendants blessings that many of them could not have imagined.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Agony, Ecstasy, and a Life Well Lived

Michelangelo produced dozens of sculptures, and his Pieta and David alone catapulted him to the front rank of Renaissance artists.

As a painter he was rivaled only by Raphael, Leonardo, and Botticelli, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgment are the most famous frescoes in Western art.

At 71 Michelangelo took on his greatest challenge: [bold added]
(WSJ Image)
In 1547 Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo, then age 71, to take over as architect of St. Peter’s. “I am not an architect,” the sculptor protested. But Michelangelo had also once claimed not to be a painter, and yet, pre-pandemic, more than 22,000 people lined up to visit the Sistine Chapel every day. Michelangelo could also protest that he was an old man—and he was. In an era when most people died by age 45, he had lived well beyond Renaissance life expectancy. He wanted to retire and return to Florence. But you do not say “No” to a pope.

The young Michelangelo who had done everything himself and had astonished the world by creating marvels was now intensely spiritual, preoccupied with death, sin and salvation. His age, a mounting number of incomplete projects, and a numbing series of losses of family and friends focused the artist’s attention on the one project that truly mattered. Although he knew he would never live to see it completed, he devoted the final 17 years of his life to St. Peter’s. He firmly believed that he was “put there by God,” that he was God’s architect.

The St. Peter’s Michelangelo inherited was a depressing mess. The project had begun in 1505 when Pope Julius II decided to replace the original basilica, built in the fourth century over the grave of the Apostle Peter. But after more than 40 years, the largest construction site in the world looked more like a Roman ruin than a new church. Broken pieces of the Early Christian church lay strewn about, pulled down by the first architect, Donato Bramante, properly maligned in his day as “Bramante Il Ruinante.” Vaults linked the four massive piers, but the central crossing over the apostle’s grave remained exposed to the elements. The entire structure was encased in scaffolding, festooned with ropes, cranes and hoists, and littered with disordered piles of stone, equipment, and animal droppings.

In addition, the building suffered from the incompatible designs and ill-conceived construction efforts of a half-dozen previous architects, none of whom had considered the most important problem of all: how to raise a dome the diameter of the Pantheon but nearly three times as tall. Michelangelo’s most urgent task, then, was to strengthen the four crossing piers and the basilica’s exterior walls, which together would support the weight and thrust of the enormous dome.

At St. Peter’s, Michelangelo was more than an architect and designer. He was the elderly overseer of a sprawling construction site: project engineer, CEO, business manager and public-relations officer.
The construction project required the depth of knowledge and experience of Michelangelo but also the energy of a much younger man. Knowing that he wouldn't live to see its completion, he had to leave detailed instructions for his successors, Michelangelo died just shy of his 89th birthday in 1564, and the dome would be completed in 1590.

Art professor William E. Wallace:
So, are you thinking of retiring? Just because you are in your 70s? Michelangelo was just entering the busiest and most creative years of his life. And look what he accomplished 52 years after completing the Sistine Chapel [in 1512].

Saturday, May 23, 2020

What is This Absurdity?

Edward Luttwak (Guardian)
Author and historian Edward Luttwak, 77, is known for his in-depth knowledge and bold predictions, some accurate (Soviet weakness, rise of populism) and some not (Sino-Soviet war, thousands of American casualties in Gulf War I).

He likens China's mishandling of the coronavirus to Chernobyl, which he views as the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. [bold added]
Along with Chernobyl comparisons, Chinese citizens online started describing the regime as “ridiculous,” Mr. Luttwak says. “Not evil, not bad—ridiculous. Suddenly, they’re ridiculous.”...Mr. Luttwak doesn’t go so far as to foretell the fall of Chinese communism, but he’s bearish on Mr. Xi.
Regimes need respect born out of fear or love in order to rule, and they cannot long abide ridicule. However, the U.S. would be unwise to pin its strategy on his prediction, especially since it's very tempting to believe that Chinese Communism will collapse on its own.

In the Soviet Union of 1984-1985 another source of scorn was the appointment of the sickly Konstantin Chernenko, then 73, to General Secretary of the Communist Party.
He could barely talk. He could barely walk. However, the requirements of the Soviet system were that when a new general secretary is installed, his colleagues are filmed saying that they swoon with delight, as if it’s a beautiful 19-year-old girl in a bikini coming out of the water,” Mr. Luttwak says. Chernenko “never did anything. His name is associated with nothing. And now, they’re all pretending that they are swooning with delight.”

People throughout the Soviet Union, including party elites, were disgusted with the spectacle. They wondered, in Mr. Luttwak’s words, “What is this absurdity?
It looks like Edward Luttwak has a point to make about U.S. Presidential politics as well.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Dispelling the Fog

(WSJ graphic - click to enlarge)
At the beginning of the coronavirus panic we were given a few rules:
1) stay indoors as much as possible;
2) wash hands frequently;
3) practice social distancing;
4) wear a mask;
5) stop touching our face.

Recently we haven't heard much about touching our face---btw, what's up with that?---but that dictum made me switch from contacts to glasses two months ago. (We wouldn't want to stick washed and sanitized fingers in our eyes because rules.)

But wearing spectacles led to another problem: they fog up when wearing a mask, especially when exercising.

The WSJ describes a simple trick: place a folded tissue inside the mask at the top. It's the most useful advice I've read in the paper all week.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

SF: the Real Pain Hasn't Set In

Casa Quezada, where 26 residents tested positive (Chron)
Single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in San Francisco are old, lacking in amenities, and situated in areas where one would not want to go at night. On the other hand rooms can be booked for $50 per day.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SRO's have become a source of coronavirus outbreaks:
Cases among SRO residents and staff have increased by 1,888% since April 1, when nine residents at eight SROs had tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Monday, there were at least 179 cases among residents and staff at 60 residential hotels, according to an SRO report provided to The Chronicle. The city’s overall case count increased by 306% during that same time period...

More than 19,000 San Franciscans live in 500 SROs across the city, many of them older or with chronic health conditions, putting them at high-risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Communal bathrooms and kitchens, a common feature in the hotels, make it difficult or impossible for residents to social distance or self-isolate.
Like a movie character right after the event, San Francisco doesn't realize that it and the high-density urban model are shot. When hotel taxes, business taxes, and later in the year property taxes on homes and businesses come in, the real pain will be felt.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Stories of One: Politics and Real Estate

Stories of one that mean something or nothing:

Republicans flip seat in California House delegation: [bold added]
Nancy Pelosi and Rebecca, Mike, and Preston Garcia (Chron)
Mike Garcia was sworn in Tuesday as the first Republican to flip a Democratic-held congressional seat in California in more than 20 years. But for both parties, his election means far more than the single GOP vote he’ll bring to the House for the next six months.

For Democrats, Garcia’s surprisingly easy special election win last week over Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), is an instant warning that November’s effort to hang onto the seven California congressional seats they grabbed from Republicans in 2018 will be anything but a cakewalk.
IMHO, the range of election outcomes is large. There are important known unknowns like infections and deaths from COVID-19, economic recovery, the mental and physical health of Joe Biden, and tensions with China. As for unknown unknowns, by definition we don't know what they are, but one or two will manifest, it's been that kind of year.

Devastated SoMa restaurant told to pay full rent starting in July. Its landlord? The city of SF [bold added]
Banana Blossom Salad
[Owner Thai] Van temporarily shuttered Green Papaya this month with the hopes of reopening whenever conventions come back to San Francisco — but he’s in a bind, as his landlord wants him to resume paying his normal $11,000 monthly rent payments July 1, even though he doesn’t expect it to be open and making money by then.

Van wouldn’t be so surprised if it weren’t for the identity of his landlord: the city of San Francisco, which also owns Moscone Center. Convention centers are in the state’s fourth and final phase of reopening, coinciding with the end of the stay-at-home order.

How are they going to ask me to pay rent when they’re not allowing customers to come in? It’s like they want me to pay for a hotel room and tell me to stay outside,” he said.
I have first- and second-hand experience with the plight of landlords. Popular sympathies go to residential tenants who are out of work and commercial tenants whose businesses are closed.

But what about the landlords, most of whom don't have mortgages guaranteed by the Federal government? The banks do not have to give such landlords loan relief--which applies just to owner-occupied properties--while their non-paying tenants cannot be evicted. (Note: in residential real estate about half of the nation's 50 million residential units are owned by individual, i.e., "mom-and-pop" investors, not fat-cat corporations.)

The government has decreed that lease agreements can be violated without penalty by tenants. The good news for landlords is that the moratorium stops after May 31st or June 30th, depending on local law.

The City of San Francisco's hard-line approach against Green Papaya gives cover to landlords who want to restore the integrity of their executed leases.

However, we admit that we do feel a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Van, whose landlord did shut down his wherewithal to pay the rent.

[Update - 5/21] - the Power of One: After The Chronicle reported on Green Papaya’s predicament Wednesday, Mayor London Breed said in a tweet that the city was working on “relief efforts, including rent forgiveness” for small businesses like Van’s.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Giving His Party the Willies

(Photo by Dallas Morning News)
Willie Brown is a partisan grey eminence of the Democratic Party, but that doesn't stop him from making political assessments that his colleagues don't want to hear. [bold added]
In the case of the pandemic, our best interests are twofold: our physical health and our economic health.

So far, Democrats give the impression they hold our health in highest regard. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and our own Gavin Newsom have been the party’s most vocal supporters of a stay-at-home strategy.

Republicans, of course, are taking their cue from President Trump and presenting themselves as the champions of the economy. The sooner the full reopening, the better....

The question is, which side will voters be on come November?

My bet is on the reopening

People are concerned about their health, but their fear of not making the rent or mortgage is much more tangible and immediate.

We Democrats try to assure people that we can have a shutdown and still help them with the rent.

But the public doesn’t see it. Those $1,200 stimulus payments are already a distant memory.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s push for a $3 trillion spending package, much of which would help city and state governments cope with the pandemic, is great public policy. But unless your paycheck comes from the government, you probably don’t care that much about state and local budgets.

You care about the rent.
IMHO, Willie Brown is probably right about Republican success in November, but a second wave of infection could make him wrong.

By the way, the Chronicle headline writer took liberties with the text by converting Willie Brown's "economic health" into the more value-laden "Wealth". Indeed, the Chronicle is just reinforcing the readership's beliefs that Republicans choose filthy lucre over health and safety, and it's not the worst misrepresentation we've ever seen.

Monday, May 18, 2020

That's Still Funny

One of the silver linings in the coronavirus cloud ("bad cloud", as opposed to "good cloud" like Microsoft's Azure and Amazon Web Services) is that boredom and ennui have led to revisiting old videos.

Tosh Togo
The Three Stooges were a top-three favorite when my parents let this kindergartener watch on the old black-and-white during the '50's. I howled at the ridiculous physical comedy, complete with the sound effects of face-slapping, head-bashing, and eye-poking.

[Related: I also enjoyed watching the fake violence of pro wrestling on Saturday mornings and was later thrilled when Tosh Togo got the role of Oddjob in Goldfinger.]

But back to the Stooges, who had material for the adults, too. In 1940 they starred in one of the first anti-Hitler Hollywood films. You Nazty Spy! is filled with Nazi references such as "storm" troopers who wear raincoats while carrying umbrellas and "books" burning to erase gambling debts.

When arms dealers seek to install a puppet dictator, they entice wallpaper hanger Moe and his assistants Larry and Curly. Dialogue:
Paper-hanger Moe smears black
paint above his lip by accident.
Moe: What does a dictator do?

Arms manufacturer: A dictator, why he makes love to beautiful women, drinks champagne, enjoys life, and never works. He makes speeches to the people, promising them plenty, gives them nothing, then takes everything. That's a dictator!

Curly: A parasite! That's for me.
The cinematography is obsolete, but the script is not.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Life is But a Stream

Two weeks ago our rector reluctantly withdrew from streaming church services:
Today was his last sermon, at least until the lockdown is lifted. He turns 66 this week and, according to both the Diocese and the County of San Mateo, cannot attend even small gatherings.
I spoke too soon. He simply pre-recorded his sermon and spliced it into the livestream on YouTube. And why not?

(Image from Ascension Press)
Long before the 21st century Christians believed that it wasn't necessary to be physically present in order to participate in worship services.

From the Apostle's Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen
When I first learned in Sunday School about the ghosts who gather around the altar during Holy Communion, it freaked me out. Now I kind of believe it's true (he said apprehensively).

Saturday, May 16, 2020

RV Trend Confirmed

Three weeks ago I picked up shares of Winnebago (WGO) at $36.40 due to a late-night inspiration.
Winnebago's Solis starts at $100K
When summer travel partially opens up, there are two near-certainties: gas will be cheaper than it has been in generations, and COVID-19 standards of cleanliness in hotels, airplanes, and car services aren't guaranteed.

RV's provide a solution--see America without having to worry about bedbugs or worse.
Today's WSJ confirms that travel by recreational vehicle is a hot trend this summer:
Solis interior (Winnebago photo)
Only 14% of travelers feel safe taking a domestic flight, and 17% feel safe at a hotel or resort according to a late-April survey by MMGY Global for the U.S. Travel Association.

Jon Gray, the CEO of RVShare, a similar peer-to-peer platform boasting more than 100,000 recreational vehicles among its nationwide listings, has noticed that a lot of people don’t want to risk hopping on airplanes to get where they’re going: “We’re seeing our drive-to markets doing particularly well right now.” The site has seen a 650% rise in RV rental bookings since early April...

“We have been flooded with new inquiries, and an unusually high number of longer rentals (lasting from one to three months in duration),” said [Livmobil CEO Bill] Ward. “I think this is going to be the trend for the remainder of 2020 and 2021, at a minimum.”
WGO closed at $50.58 yesterday.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The COVID-19 San Francisco Earthquake of 2020

Despite widespread lease defaults by apartment tenants, retail stores, and restaurants, the entire real estate market has not collapsed: [bold added]
Investors are flocking to America’s mega landlords, drawn by signs the companies that emerged from last decade’s foreclosure crisis owning huge pools of rental houses are weathering the economic shutdown far better than feared. Many also expect that the coronavirus pandemic will make suburban single-family homes both more desirable and more difficult to buy for even the relatively well-heeled...

Rental executives say some recent move-ins chose to rent instead of buy given the economic uncertainty. Others have leased houses to get out of apartment buildings, given the contamination risks associated with close living.
There's been anecdotal evidence of fed-up San Franciscans leaving the City for open spaces, and we expect that future tax and payroll data will confirm this suspicion.

A month ago we wrote:
Post-war Levittown, PA (photo: J Reps)
Here is a pretty safe prediction about attitudinal change and consequential action: the urban model is passé. Mass transit is dangerous. The risks of city living are too high for children. The flight to the suburbs and rural areas will accelerate because living there is not only safer but cheaper.

The suburbs boomed after World War II changed the country. COVID-19 is likely to have the same effect.
At the time we hadn't mentioned commercial real estate, but a similar decline appears inevitable. Not only are weaker tenants defaulting, but financially stable companies are realizing that working from home requires much less office space. (Headline: Twitter announces work from home policy will continue indefinitely.)

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed real estate values. The coronavirus earthquake of 2020 will have a like effect, though few are aware that it's happening.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Meat Prices: Trends Continue

Econ 101: more supply
means lower prices
Last week we noted how beef prices were rising faster than pork, despite the coronavirus having significantly affected all meat-processing capacity.

Since then the pork belly has fallen by 80 cents to $2.99 a pound, while the 10-pound beef brisket had risen again to $4.99 / lb., double the price of last year.

The crisis of high beef prices is simultaneously the opportunity to prepare dishes that we would otherwise have never learned to cook. Use your time wisely, grasshopper, for this crisis and opportunity may never come this way again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Commercial Aviation: It's Worse Than You Think

The Kinsley Gaffe--defined as politicians saying a truth that they had not intended to reveal (for example, what they really thought about some of their supporters)--is a political term, but it can apply equally to business leaders. For example, here's Boeing CEO David Calhoun: [bold added]
Now he smiles rarely (Chicago Trib)
Boeing’s report came as Chief Executive David Calhoun painted a dire near-term outlook for the airline industry, saying growth wouldn’t likely return to 2019 levels for three to five years.

Mr. Calhoun told NBC’s “Today” show that passenger traffic won’t be up to 25% of pre-pandemic levels by September, possibly approaching 50% by the end of the year.

He predicted the collapse of air-travel demand would “most likely” force a major U.S. carrier to go out of business.
Mr. Calhoun and Boeing have been trying to walk back his statement that United, American, or Delta will go out of business, but that's what many analysts within the industry are already saying.

From an aviation webinar: how many companies will survive until 2023?

In "normal" aviation downturns, there are always some bright spots in the industry. For example carriers may postpone new deliveries but keep operating older airplanes intended for the scrap heap, and the MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul) sector of commercial aviation does well.

This time demand has fallen so drastically that old and new airplanes are being put in storage, which means that airplanes requiring multi-million dollar overhauls per FAA regulations are themselves parked and a new one pulled out of inventory. There's much lower demand for MRO in the next two years.

To an industry that operates on thin margins and high fixed costs and debt, conditions are the worst that anyone can recall (9/11 was a blip compared to COVID-19). The number of players who have cash and credit resources to survive until 2023 is minuscule.

I'm glad to be retired.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

“James, You’re the Best”

Carly Simon, on the making of the theme to The Spy Who Loved Me (1977):
The piano player who looks like an accountant (WSJ)
The next day, when the doorbell rang, it was the tax guy with heavy glasses in a black suit and tie. I went into the kitchen to make us tea.

As the water boiled, I wondered why the tax guy was playing my piano. When I came out with the tea, the pianist turned out to be Marvin [Hamlisch]. I didn’t realize he looked like an accountant.

Marvin sang and played “Nobody Does it Better.” Then I sang it back. I don’t read music, but I when I listen, the music sticks.
The movie starred Roger Moore as James Bond and one of Bond's all-time villains, the metal-toothed Jaws. I only liked the movie, but loved the song.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Measure Twice, Cut Once and Quickly

Prof. Huggy Rao
Looking good on television or streaming video is a key component of leadership in the modern age. Unfortunately, some people may make the mistake of ignoring other qualities.

Knowledge of specific details and the ability to listen, communicate clearly, work tirelessly, and set a good example are still equally, perhaps more important.

Stanford Business School professor Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao cites the example of a military leader not well-known to the younger generation:
(Arlington Cemetery website)
I think the best military leader America ever had was Matthew Ridgway. Ridgway was a brigadier general during World War II.

He replaced Douglas MacArthur on the Korean operation. He’d never fought in Asia, never led a land battle. He had no idea about Korea.

As soon as he took charge, he spent the first couple of days flying around Korea. He took the navigator’s seat. They flew all over, noting rivers, lakes, mountains.

Once he understood the geography and topography of Korea, he met regimental commanders and would ask them a series of questions to assess their leadership readiness. Often, his first questions had to do with geography. Where’s the nearest river? How deep is it? If the commander wasn’t able to answer, he was fired instantly because he was going to endanger their troops. That is wartime leadership.
Despite the pressure, Matthew Ridgway took some time figuring out what to do. Once he knew, he didn't hesitate to act.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother's Day, 2020

Last year the church presented yellow roses to all the ladies; this year there were no roses, much less a worship service, just pixels on a screen.

Last year I purchased an arrangement from a local florist. This year I placed a Costco bouquet in an old vase. For dinner we had take-out chicken sandwiches, not the same as last year's dinner in a nice restaurant.

Mom and caregiver
I called Mom. She was happy to have received a few visitors, despite the hassle of putting on a mask and having to go to the main entrance. Each one of her children sent her a card and thanked her for being their mother.

A lot less was spent on food, gifts, and travel this year, but I suspect many had a good Mother's Day anyway.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Coyotes, Toads, and Goats

With San Francisco Bay to the East and Hwy 101 to the
West ducks and geese are the only wildlife in Foster City.
It's been only a few weeks of hunkering down, but already the animals are coming out of hiding:
It turns out boar, deer, coyotes and birds have been right under our noses all along.
In dystopian science fiction the death of civilization is represented by deserted, crumbling cities. Fiction permits writers to bypass decades; in our current reality the empty alabaster cities aren't crumbling...yet.

(WSJ image)
(Digression: Horace Smith's Ozymandias is not as well known as Shelley's. However, the former does make explicit the impermanence of modern edifices, while in Shelley's version--the much better poem--it is only inferred.)

Among COVID-19's many lessons: film-makers, if you're going to depict a humanity-less future don't stop with dogs, cats, and rats in the city. You might want to add coyotes, toads, and goats.

A mountain goat in Llandudno, Wales, in March. (WSJ Photo)

Friday, May 08, 2020

Blood Thinners and CPAP Machines

Randomized double-blind placebo-controlled (RDBPC) studies are the gold standard when it comes to testing vaccines and medicines. Unfortunately, they take a long time--typically well over a year--to conduct, and the coronavirus' damage to health and the economy doesn't allow leeway to develop RDBPC solutions.

Medical practitioners are now forced to make educated guesses about possible treatments: [bold added]
2013 sleep study resulted in
us getting a CPAP machine
Regardless of the cause, anecdotal evidence of blood clots in COVID-19 patients is prompting many physicians to examine more closely whether a certain subgroup of these patients — those sick enough to be hospitalized — should receive blood thinners as a preventive measure as soon as they’re admitted.

The American Society of Hematology’s recently updated recommendations include the use of low-dose blood thinners for hospitalized COVID-19 patients unless they have a condition that puts them at higher risk of bleeding...

it was New York emergency room doctors who told their West Coast counterparts about the apparent unexpected benefits of keeping patients off ventilators as much as possible...

This is a pivot away from earlier thought, which was that COVID-19 patients who came to the hospital struggling to breathe should be intubated, or placed on a ventilator. But anecdotal evidence from hospitals in New York and Italy shows that patients often do better than expected with less invasive treatments that help them breathe — CPAP machines, which administer oxygen through a mask, and high-flow nasal cannula, where oxygen tubes are inserted into the nostrils.
Blood thinners and CPAP machines are not the gold standard, but anecdotal evidence is still evidence.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Falling and Rising and Choosing

Like any punter, I brag about my wins. So permit me to chortle about the pick I made two weeks ago.

Winnebago (WGO-click chart to enlarge) has appreciated 31%, while the principal indexes have gone up 1-5%.

So I'm chortling away.

401(k): the amount lost is equal to years of salary.
Not very pleasurable is the status of the 401(k). Allocated to the stock of a former employer, there's a lot more invested in the 401(k) than in Winnebago and a lot more to lose.

Ever since the pandemic cratered the stock market it has been painful to look at brokerage statements.

On the bright side stock market analysts say that we have seen the bottom and the market is rallying because the country is re-opening for business.

I don't feel the confidence. The infection rate is down but we don't know why. For people who do become severely ill, there's no vaccine and no guaranteed treatment (remdesivir is only somewhat effective). The lockdown did "bend the curve" so hospitals weren't overwhelmed like Italy, but it seems to your humble blogger that we're re-opening and crossing our fingers that the second wave won't hit.

Everyone will have to judge for themselves whether and how much to go out and practice social distancing. Everyone will have to judge for themselves how important it is to work and how much health risk to accept.

Perhaps that's what America is all about----not locking down or opening for business but giving people all the information and letting them decide for themselves what's right for them.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Cooking What is Available

Costco pork belly at $3.79/lb.
Meat shortages are increasing as factories have closed due to the coronavirus: [bold added]
America’s farms are still packed with animals raised for meat production. The problem is that the virus has made it increasingly hard to turn those animals into store-ready packs of pork chops or ground beef.

That’s because Tyson and many other meat processing companies across the country have paused operations at a number of plants where workers have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the USDA’s weekly report from April 27, beef production was down nearly 25% year-over-year, while and pork production was down 15%.
After the rubdown.
Vegans, nutritionists, and environmentalists may applaud the decline in production for different reasons, but carnivores like me should also look at this as an opportunity to expand their recipe repertoire.

Cheaper cuts of beef, pork, and lamb are still plentiful, and next to spices the other ingredient one needs is time--time to marinade and slow-cook--and time is what I've got plenty of these days.

The belly had shrunk by a third
Last week Costco was selling pork belly strips for $3.79 per pound, about half the price of chuck roast. A few months ago I had tried to slow-roast pork belly at 200°F. After four hours in the air fryer the product was rubbery and greatly disappointing. It was time to complete the experiment.

I rubbed the strips with prepackaged char siu (Chinese red pork) seasoning and left them overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I tried various combinations of temperature and roasting duration, one strip at a time.

The best result for this air fryer turned out to be 90 minutes at 275°F. The pork strips were fork tender, with a slight crisping around the edges. A great deal of fat had been rendered; the cooked belly had shrunk by a third. I put the fat in the fridge to solidify for later disposal in the compost bin.

Pork will go onto the shopping list. The coronavirus has brought us closer to our grandparents' life by forcing us to fix things ourselves, rediscover the joy of driving, and learning to cook what is available, not what we want.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Cinco de Mayo, 2020

Learning never stops: now I can find the date on the calendar. From 15 years ago:
SF CdM Festival, 2016 (Chron photo)
There’s a Chevy’s Restaurant near our house, and every Cinco de Mayo the cars overflow from the parking lot into our quiet neighborhood. It doesn’t matter whether one is Latino, Anglo, Asian, or black; the urge to party spans all races and cultures. Today we are all Hispanics, just as we’re all Irish on March 17th.

At least I’ve expanded my cultural horizons. When I first became aware of the holiday, I approached assorted individuals and asked, “When is Cinco de Mayo?” Years later, when I learned to count in Spanish (and French and Italian….) it dawned why they gave me strange looks.
If you're gonna ask a stupid question, you may as well ask the stupidest question.

Monday, May 04, 2020

SF Empty Storefront Tax: Oops

Last year we noted different views on San Francisco's empty storefront problem.

(Chronicle diagram)
Businesses asserted that one main factor was the lengthy permitting process that required small business owners to survive at least 12 months before opening. (Click to enlarge diagram, right.) Other reasons were
high construction costs, as well as the need for seismic retrofits, which account for a quarter of the neighborhood’s current vacancies. San Francisco’s high rents and labor costs have also hurt.
Progressives had a different take:
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach, blame[d] landlords who have “unrealistic expectations of value” and “greedy brokers” who inflate those expectations.
The progressive view prevailed, and an empty-storefront-tax initiative passed in March. It will charge vacant properties $250 per foot of linear frontage.

The timing couldn't have been worse, because in two weeks the coronavirus shuttered even more San Francisco storefronts. (Some closings appear permanent, according to friends who walk by them every day). Even Aaron Peskin can't ignore the new reality:
The tax was slated to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. On Tuesday, Peskin introduced legislation that would postpone the start date by nearly a year.
But the supervisor is undaunted:
Peskin said he still expects “the best behavior of property owners relative to helping stabilize small businesses.”
We expect you to behave....or else, comrade.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Have Faith, Father

The lady minister wishes the rector a Happy 66th.
No social distancing is required for married couples.
The coronavirus has forced everyone to cancel, downsize, or convert to streaming video life's celebrations.

Graduations, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals (nowadays a celebration) have all turned out not to be the social occasions that organizers imagined.

Neither has the "farewell tour" of the rector, who retires on August 1st after 23 years of leading the congregation.

April homilies were presented to nearly empty houses over YouTube, and instead of an organ and full-throated choir, the music of Easter was sung by a soloist to pre-recorded accompaniment.

Today was his last sermon, at least until the lockdown is lifted. He turns 66 this week and, according to both the Diocese and the County of San Mateo, cannot attend even small gatherings.

Thank you, father, have faith that it won't end like this. Things will open up by summer.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Live to Recycle Another Day

I'd rather be in a car. (NY Daily News)
Two months ago we noted how environmental measures are now less important to the general public:
  • Washing hands frequently with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds is recommended by State and Federal authorities, with nary a peep from local water districts, and everyone does this 10 to 20 times a day.
  • Chemical wipes are used all the time on public surfaces, and no one disapproves. No one frowns at the extra amount of trash.
  • If driving a car to work or school is at all an option, have you seen anyone choosing to put themselves or their kids on a filthy bus or train?
  • For years Starbucks and other coffee shops offered discounts to customers who bring in reusable (hard plastic, ceramic, metal) cups to reduce trash. The coronavirus has caused Starbucks to suspend this policy for sanitary reasons.
  • Now it's business' turn. Corporations who have touted their Environmental, Social, and Governance cred realize that ESG is secondary to survival: [bold added]
    Today, every occupant of every C-suite is trying to figure out what they’re willing to throw overboard as the economic storm spawned by the pandemic is swamping their ships. Businesses that were planning to help save the world are now simply saving themselves...

    “Belief in a new ‘sustainability’ model of capitalism is growing but will it endure?” Paul Pellizzari, the sustainability chief for Hard Rock International, wrote in a piece published Monday on the environmental media site GreenBiz. “Will mad scrambles to save profitability and market capitalization stall or kill a new paradigm?”

    History suggests this new paradigm is probably on the back burner.
    “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."---Samuel Johnson

    Friday, May 01, 2020

    May Day, 2020

    May Day is International Workers' Day, and marchers have made adjustments to accommodate coronavirus restrictions:
    Masked, but not much distancing
    The two largest protests in San Francisco and Oakland didn’t involve crowds gathering in front of buildings or marching side-by-side through city streets while chanting and waving colorful signs. Demonstrators instead climbed into cars and trucks, or mounted bikes and other vehicles and formed caravans to parade their way through cities and sometimes surround places like government buildings or businesses.
    I prefer how May Day is honored in my home state.
    May Day is lei day in Hawaii
    Flowers and garlands everywhere…
    (Photo from
    Leis can be simple or elaborate, multi- or mono-colored, expensive or free as the flowers from one’s own back yard. They are given at birthdays, airports, weddings, graduations, banquets, holidays, or sometimes just because. They are given freely without expectation of reciprocation, often to people that one has never met before.

    There’s supposed to be no lasting commitment—the flowers fade quickly even in a fridge; the receipt of a lei therefore usually “means” little. But sometimes we remember the occasions forever.

    A lei is granted with a kiss. Many young boys, grimacing, receive their first kiss from a non-family member when receiving a lei. Later, for the cost of a few flowers it’s a good pretext for a young adolescent male to peck the cheek of a girl he’s long admired (if your mother made the lei, don’t tell the girls, they feel funny when you say that).

    On May Day, 2020, there won't be a lot of kissing or giving of leis. Let's hope that on May Day, 2021, we can go back to the way things were. © 2020 Stephen Yuen